Pearl spot Mercato, which opened this past February, is on the cusp of something good, but the place doesn't yet know what it wants to be. Is it a sit-down Italian lunch and dinner restaurant? A grab-and-go affair where diners order breakfast from the restaurant's flat-panel TV menus and devour the goods elsewhere? A strange hybrid of the two?
For now, even the staff seems confused by Mercato's order-at-the counter, "half service" policy for breakfast and lunch coupled with full service for dinner. And the restaurant's space is as segregated as its dining styles. One side houses cases of delicious Nuvrei pastries and 24 rotating flavors of gelato; beyond the counter, an airy, 90-seat dining room offers cushy lounge chairs, a tall communal table and sleek dining tables surrounded by playful orange and candy-apple-red bubble chairs—all ideal for sit-down service.
Despite the conflicting formats, the menu offers a welcome mix of light fare and both classic and inspired entrees. A meal might begin with a appetizer of bruschetta al forno ($7): The grilled ciabatta slices arrive aside prosciutto-wrapped asparagus, one slice topped with delicate, sweet fig marmalade; the other with a lumpy glob of fontina cheese. But why did the kitchen flirt with a combo of the two rather than incorporate the pair of ingredients on each slice of bread?
Salads, for the most part, are more than modest in size and get solid points for flavor. A recent Riccia ($7), a baby red-leaf lettuce salad brimming with pistachios, benefits only slightly from a meager sprinkling of Gorgonzola dolce and cold, greasy-crisp pancetta wheels; the Rucola ($7) weds baby organic arugula and shaved fennel with grana cheese and zesty lemon oil in a classically pleasing Italian combination. The simplest salad of them all, however—the Cesarina ($7)—disappoints with a pile of limp anchovies atop the bed of lettuce and barely enough dressing to coat half of the leaves.
Mercato also boasts 12 kinds of pizzas. The Piccante ($12) presents a welcome alliance of fresh mozzarella, organic San Marzano tomatoes and Calabrese spicy salami. At other times, though, the thin-crust, Neapolitan-style pizzas' flavors fall flat, as is the case with the Salsiccia ($13), topped with mild pork sausage, fresh tomato and Cerignola olives—it needs a bit more heat.
The menu lists eight pastas, too. Mercato's spaghetti carbonara ($13) lacked the sweet, smoky flavors and creaminess one expects from the comforting dish, but a serving of pennelike garganelli ($12) proved the chef's ability to reinvent a traditional Italian dish by using zippy arugula in addition to basil for a pesto sauce and tossing crunchy pistachios and string beans with al dente noodles.
Panini, piadine (flatbread panini) and entrees in the vein of lasagna ($14) and bistecca ($18) round out the mealtime offerings, along with a concise Italian wine list. But in order to truly understand the wide-ranging appeal Mercato could soon achieve—if the place works out its ordering format and fine-tunes the menu—one must try the dense, creamy housemade gelato. Best to do it before word gets out, though, because the restaurant hasn't budgeted for much standing or seating space surrounding what could quickly become its most popular personality trait.
904 NW Couch St., 219-9966, mercatopdx.com. Breakfast, lunch and dinner 7 am-10 pm Monday-Thursday; 7 am-11 pm Friday-Saturday. $$ Moderate.